With graduation ceremony unlikely, South Salem parents organize mosaic mural to celebrate Class of 2020

A mockup of the Saxon Class of 2020 mural (Courtesy/Kim Pike)

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The graduation caps that South Salem High School seniors ordered months ago may go unworn. 

But the Class of 2020 has another chance to celebrate with a mosaic mural organized by parents to commemorate students who had their senior year cut short by a global pandemic. 

Each senior is provided a tile, shaped like a graduation cap, to paint with the decorations that would have adorned their mortarboard for a live ceremony. They’ll be assembled into a work of art depicting the caps tossed into the air, as they would have been absent COVID-19. 

“Even though these kids aren’t going to really get to throw their caps as a group, we’ll put it up there forever,” said Jeanine Renne, a Salem ceramic artist and parent of a senior. 

The idea came from Kim Pike, whose son Braque is graduating from South this year. She was talking with other South parents on Facebook about ways to recognize the graduating class when another parent shared a series of Post-It drawings by senior Jenna Barrie, depicting colorful faces. 

That got Pike thinking about a mosaic. 

She began talking with Renne about using art to acknowledge the class that’s lost the traditional celebrations at the end of high school. They wanted something hopeful but something more stylish than school art projects done with students applying handprints to a mural. 

Renne researched the cost of tiles and materials, and Pike, a state budget analyst, figured out the needed permits and made an $8,000 budget for the project. 

They weren’t sure anyone else would get on board, but a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the artwork raised $2,000 in the first two days, Pike said. Many of the contributions came from outside the South Salem area. 

The parents also asked South seniors and teachers for their feedback over email and got a positive response. 

“Throwing our caps up in the air is the moment that we all think of when we think of the graduation ceremony,” senior Tamara Hernandez Garcia said in an email. “Resembling that in a mural that will last is something amazing – to be able to share with the following classes and leave with a form of closure, knowing that we won’t be forgotten, but will be a part of history.” 

Renne is figuring out the logistics of getting 400 students to decorate tiles while observing social distancing. A nearby church has offered its parking lot as a possible painting site, she said, which would let students work in small groups and paint their tiles while saying six feet away. Volunteers would sanitize supplies between seniors. 

“We’ll have to do everything from a distance but we have all the time in the world,” Renne said. 

Willamette Art Center will fire the tiles. Then, the parents will hire a tile setter to install the work over the summer, now planned for the southwest corner of the school. 

Seniors with an artistic bent can submit a design for one of several larger graduation caps on the mural. 

The parents said they hope the artwork will support teens who are mourning the loss of high school traditions. 

“We need to stop and say, ‘We acknowledge that this is kind of horrible for you,’” Pike said. 

Principal Lara Tiffin said the school is “in full support” of the project. School leaders are meeting with the district’s facilities office to make sure the installation site parents have selected will work for the school. 

“We hope all of our seniors will take part,” she said. 

The organizing group has emailed the senior class with more information. Those with questions can contact [email protected]. 

Correction: This article was updated to correct Pike’s last name.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.